Aug 21, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back as it was meant to be seen

Whoever posted that video is closer to the mark than they may think. As Lucas told me when I interviewed him for my book, Blockbuster:—
“Star Wars is basically a silent film, was designed to be a silent film. In terms of people’s aesthetics, especially critics, they complained bitterly when sound came in, that the medium had been destroyed. [But] the concept of cinema started as a vaudeville show. It started as a magic act. They took the magician off the bill, put up this sheet and they'd run this magical newfangled thing, where you could see things that weren't there. D W Griffith is the father of the blockbuster, in terms of giant huge epic films designed to make a ton of money and be promoted with all the gusto of a carnival sideshow. And that has gone on every single year of the movies."
This was the central thesis of the book: that the last 30 years of cinema have basically been the silent era, replayed all over again, this time on steroids.
“A cinema of moments, of images, of sensory stimuli increasingly divorced from story” in Peter Biskind’s words, “The movies leapt ahead — through hyperspace if you will — to the 80s and 90s, the era of non-narrative music videos, and VCRs, which allowed users to view film in a non-narrative way, surfing the action beats with fastforward.” That’s some leap. As a roll-call of the bogeymen which critics see bedevilling contemporary cinema, it can scarcely be bettered — action beats, VCRs, MTV.... One can almost see the poor moviegoer, twitching and spasming in their seat, as their over-stimulated lobes receive their instructions from the blockbuster power-grid. “The eye and mind are both bewildered by the too sudden and too frequent shifts of scene,” wrote William Eaton in an article for American Magazine entitled ‘A New Epoch In The Movies’. “There is a terrible sense of rush and hurry and flying about, which is intensified by the twitching film and generally whang-bang music,” and who, with Lucas's laser-bolts still ringing in their ears, could disagree?

There’s only one problem: Eaton wrote this in 1914. The new epoch in question wasn’t the blockbuster era, but the silent era, Hollywood’s most energetic boom-time, when the studios ploughed what money they had into luring kids into the newly built nickelodeons to watch delicately-shaded character studies of speeding locomotive trains, such as Empire State Express — a film which not only boasts one of the coolest titles of any silent film, but which blasted audience members out of their socks in 1897: “Two ladies in one of the boxes on the left-hand of the horseshoe, which is just where the flyer vanishes from view, screamed and nearly fainted as it came apparently rushing upon them,” ran one newspaper’s account. “They recovered in time to laugh at their needless excitement.” This is the problem with death-of-film arguments like Biskind’s; they have an uncanny ability to resemble accounts of the birth of film, when the best minds of a generation fathered a squalling brat of a medium, hopelessly addicted to sensation and show, and never happier than when frying the nerves of its audience. Death throes and birth pains can seem remarkably similar. Biskind’s “cinema of moments, of images, of sensory stimuli increasingly divorced from story” is a pretty good description of the very first films, for all silent movies were, by definition, action movies, and many were straightforward thrill rides, unadorned by such fripperies as plot, or characters, or stars. They were made fast, and sold by brand name (“Every day a Biograph feature”), playing out in nickelodeons whose viewing conditions weren’t too far from the modern-day multiplex, to an audience comprised mostly of immigrants and teenagers. “The backbone of today’s business is the attendance of young people from seventeen to twenty-three years of age,” sniffed Harold Corey in Everybody’s Magazine in 1919. “At 23 other interests develop.”

By then, plots had arrived, but only just. According to the Brooklyn Eagle in 1906, the modern-day audience “must have something happening every minute, allowing for no padding with word-painting, following climax after climax.” Anyone who thinks Star Wars invented break-neck pacing needs to check out the early chase flicks of D W Griffith, which flew through the projector as if of their own accord. For The Lonedale Operator, Griffith mounted his camera on the front of a speeding train; and for A Girl and Her Trust, had it placed onboard a car that was racing alongside a racing train, with another car in hot pursuit. How often the modern-day blockbuster, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Terminator, would dust off the same chase movie mechanics first pioneered by Griffiths and leave critics nursing their cricked necks. In the New York Times in 1915, Alexander Wollcott wrote “It is easy to predict that the cut-back, and similar evidences of restlessness, will fade gradually from the screens, to be used only on special occasions.” It didn’t of course, the restlessness spread further, and movies got faster still, slowed only by Griffith’s discovery, in 1916 with Birth of a Nation of cinema’s other constituent dimension: scale. Upon its release 1916, the film’s cinematographer, Karl Brown, noted that “Bigger and better, bigger and better became the constantly chanted watchword of the year. Soon the two words became one. Bigger meant better, and a sort of giganticism overwhelmed the world, especially the world of motion pictures”. All in all, it hadn’t taken long — just under 25 years — for the cinema to discover speed, for speed to give way to size, size to spectacle, hype to hoopla, and “unprecedented splendour of pageantry... combined with grotesque incoherence of design and utter fatuity of thought”, as the Times called Griffith’s Intolerance — the first of the megaflops, as perhaps any film in which the characters pay repeated worship to the goddess Ishtar was, perhaps, always destined to be.

To anyone who has sat through the last 25 years of American film, in fact, the first 25 years offer a strangely familiar landscape, a land of speed-freaks and hucksters, teenage kicks and sensation-merchants, all running to familiar rhythms and following much the same course. “The first newspaper coverage of motion pictures presented them as a technological phenomenon (‘Edison’s marvel’), then as a social problem (‘nickel madness’) and ultimately as an economic statistic (‘the nations fourth largest industry’)”, writes Richard Kozsarski in An Evening’s Entertainment. The blockbuster era would follow much the same course, from the explosive special effects of Star Wars (technological phenomenon), to the worries over Batman’s hype (social problem) to the hysteria surrounding the budget of Titanic (economic statistic). There is even, around the 20-year-mark, a huge technological revolution, forged in the flurry of fresh dollars: the invention of sound in 1927 and the arrival of C.G.I. in 1993. Spielberg and Lucas didn’t betray really cinema at all: they plugged it back into the mains, returning the medium to its roots as one big special effect, punching through the fourth wall, the screams that greeted Jaws in the theatre floating back to the screams that first greeted Empire State Express, as it whistled into the station.

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